(Video On-Demand, March 2017) Director Tom Ford’s second feature is often just as controlled as his previous A Single Man, but it doesn’t quite manage to fully exploit the material at its disposal. Amy Adams is her usually remarkable self as an art gallery manager absorbed by her ex-husband’s roman à clef—thanks to some clever cinematography and dark clothes, her head often floats alone on-screen, focusing our attention on a role with a complex inner component. Told non-linearly while hopping in-between a base reality and fiction, Nocturnal Animals is happy to remain enigmatic even when dealing with terrible events. The novel-in-a-film is about gruesome murder, vengeance and a man losing everything. But what I did not expect to find here is as good a movie portrayal as I’ve seen of the reader’s experience with a great book: the way we get hooked in lengthy reading sessions, the abrupt transition from book to real life, the way the fiction bleeds into reality… I’m not sure any movie has quite shown it like Nocturnal Animal. This, paradoxically, makes the rest of it weaker, especially when it becomes obvious that reality and fiction are meant to interact and reflect upon each other (what a great idea to have Isla Fisher play Amy Adams’ fictional counterpart): the conclusion seems to hold its punches, and seems limp in comparison to what precedes it. Otherwise, we do get great performances by Jake Gyllenhaal and a pleasantly gritty Michael Shannon as a doomed policeman. Add to that the terrific cinematography and Nocturnal Animals gets a marginal recommendation—with the caveat that it doesn’t all click as well as it should.
(Video on Demand, February 2017) The last few years have been a boon for fans of cerebral big-budget Science Fiction, and here comes Arrival to continue the streak. As someone who’s quite familiar with Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life short story from which Arrival is based, I can’t say that the film had a lot of conceptual surprises in store. Still, that makes it easier to appreciate what was a difficult writing exercise: adapting a non-linear story of understanding and loss into a film that is, at times, thrilling, majestic, mind-expanding and deeply felt. Adding quite a bit to the short story without betraying its core, Arrival manages to take a borderline-ridiculous concept and boil it down to an intimate story for a woman who couldn’t be farther away from the action-hero ideal. Amy Adams is terrific in the lead role, sympathetically incarnating a brainy scientist abruptly thrust in the middle of a tense first-contact scenario. Arrival does nearly everything very well, but it’s notable in the way it presents an initially-familiar scenario (aliens land!) in a way that feels grounded in reality. By the time we’re in non-linear gravity-shifting mode, the film has earned the right to wow its audience. Most assuredly the best Hollywood Science Fiction film of 2016, Arrival gives a bit of hope back that Hollywood can still make great movies when it wants to. Best of all, it’s another celebrated entry in French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s filmography—and now he’s taking aim at Blade Runner and Dune.
(On Cable TV, January 2017) I rarely think that movies are worth seeing solely for acting talent, but Doubt is an obvious exception, even more so now than when it was released. Meryl Streep is a national treasure, of course, and Viola Davis has always been a solid performer, but now that Philip Seymour Hoffman is gone and that Amy Adams has become a megastar, Doubt looks dangerously top-heavy with an incredibly strong cast. As befits a play brought to the screen (director John Patrick Shanley adapting his own award-winning work), the performers are the key to a dialogue-heavy drama. Every four of the leads got Oscar nominations, even Davis for a mere two scenes. Dealing with troubling allegations of abuses and what happens when beliefs (in God, in goodness, in guilt) clash together, Doubt is a drama in the purest sense, uncluttered by physicality or artifices—it could be a radio play if it tried. Visually, the film blandly re-creates a 1960s Catholic school, but the point is elsewhere. It’s certainly not an action film, but you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for a thriller when it reaches fever pitch and truly sparks with dramatic conflict. The last line is merciless in offering no comfort, moral support or resolution. This is not a film that ends as much as it lingers.
(On DVD, October 2016) I don’t necessarily watch films based on casting, but Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Steve Zahn and Alan Arkin are enough to make anyone interested in Sunshine Cleaning. The premise itself does have a bit of a kick to it, as two down-on-their-luck sisters decide to go in business as crime scene cleanup specialists. Alas, casting and premise probably oversell the true nature of the film, an unglamorous and grounded (bordering on depressing) drama about dysfunctional people trying to keep it together. Don’t expect laughs by the barrel, don’t expect Adams or Blunt to vamp it up and don’t expect a triumphant ending. Albuquerque shows up without artifice, the story generally takes place in working-class settings in-between strip malls and noisy family restaurants. While this down-to-earthiness may disappoint a number of potential fans, Sunshine Cleaning does achieve most of the marks it sets for itself as a sentimental drama. Adams and Blunt get to stretch acting skills that often get forgotten in their broader movies, and Arkin is a delight even if his role doesn’t stray from his post Little Miss Sunshine persona. It may not amount to the glossy blockbuster comedy that the film could have become with a few tweaks, but Sunshine Cleaning works and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) At first, it may be curious to see director Tim Burton, best known for visually inventive film, tackle a “simple” biographical film about an artist. But that assessment ignores two things: first, how Burton is a dedicated real-life fan of Margaret Keane (to the point of having commissioned at least one painting from her); but also how the story of Keane, long denied credits for paintings due to her husband claiming that he was the true artist, would resonate so deeply with fellow visual-artist Burton. So it is that despite the low-spectacle visuals of a realistic biography (albeit featuring an unexpected use of visual effects in a short oneiric scene), you can feel Burton engage with his subject and, in doing so, deliver one of his best films in years. This being said, this isn’t necessarily a masterpiece: De-glammed Amy Adams is very good as Keane, but Christopher Waltz’s manic interpretation of her monstrously egomaniac husband often veers too close to cheap caricature thanks to a narrative firmly beholden to Margaret Keane’s point of view. Despite the rightfulness of this viewpoint, the film seems to make too many cheap jabs and dilute its own effectiveness in doing so. Still, the story works and so does the film in general. The change of pace does Burton good, even though it may mean that Big Eyes doesn’t get half the attention that his other more genre-driven films do.
(Netflix Streaming, October 2015) The gift of romantic comedies is to make us believe in suspense even when there can’t be. That, unfortunately, can lead to strange decisions such as stretching out a forgone conclusion several minutes after it should be done. But that’s only one of Leap Year’s mistakes, as it sets up typical romantic-comedy contrivances to make sure that Amy Adams’s character finds true love rather than the bland sterile life promised by her materialistic fiancé. In order to do so, we spend most of the film in a version of Ireland heavy in clichés and familiar story beats, at the mercy of a cranky young man (Matthew Goode, dependably competent) who will never-ever-ever fall for the protagonist. The Irish fetishism gets to be a bit too much at times. Much of Leap Year feels on autopilot, especially as the initial frictions between the characters predictably give way to romantic attraction. Both Adams and Goode are sympathetic in their roles, but they are not good enough to forgive the rest of this bland romantic comedy. Leap Year actually builds such a reservoir of resentment at some point that as it busies itself through an unnecessary conclusion, bored audiences become amenable to the idea that Adams characters should return to America and settle down with her boyfriend, if only it could make the film end sooner. Leap Year isn’t terrible, but it’s not very good either in a genre where seeing one film means seeing almost all of them.
(On TV, May 2015) The weirdest franchises can emerge from Hollywood’s idea factory, and so what we have here is some kind of “museum comes to life, allowing historical characters to interact” CGI-fest, along with actors having up playing grander-than-life personas. This second Night at the Museum is a bit weirdly structured, with Ben Stiller’s protagonist somehow selling a company in order to keep prolonging the franchise. Oh well; it’s not as if we’re really watching the film for its finer plot points as much as Robin Williams once again having fun as Teddy Roosevelt, or Amy Adams really playing it up as Amelia Earheart, complete with snappy period dialogue. The rest of the film is almost entirely based on sight-gags, a copious use of CGI and plot mechanics aimed at kids. It sort-of-works, even though nothing really stick in mind except for Adams’ performance. There should be more to say about the film, but somehow there isn’t.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) As a plot-driven moviegoer, I’m always a bit frustrated when contemplating movies such as American Hustle: While I had a pretty good time watching the film, much of this enjoyment was based on getting to know the characters, appreciating the gorgeous re-creation of the late 1970s, humming at the soundtrack and enjoying the costumes. Plot? Well, there’s some kind of bare-bones caper/con action going on, but it’s not particularly heartfelt, nor all that interesting once everything has gone down. This a director/actor’s kind of film, and so the real joy of American Hustle is in seeing David O. Russell having so much fun with Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence that all five of them get Oscar nominations. Much of the acclaim is justified: Russell may not be as interested in telling a story than in letting his actors run with the scenery and the costumes, but American Hustle is filled with feel-good energy, tense dramatic confrontations, steady forward rhythm and plenty of laughs. Christian Bale turns in another performance unlike anything seen from him before, while Bradley Cooper carefully undermines his own all-American good-guy image, Amy Adams brings subtlety to a complicated character and Jennifer Lawrence almost makes us forget that she’s roughly ten years too young to play that particular character. Frankly, American Hustle is so successful in what it gets right that it practically minimizes what it doesn’t get so right. It feels scattered, loose, improvisational and filled with badly-tied loose ends. But at the same time, it’s a fun movie and an invigorating viewing experience. Who cares if the plotting isn’t tight enough: At a time where nearly all major cinema releases are excuses for bigger and shakier special effect sequences, it’s almost a relief when a character-based film comes along and ends up being a massive success.
(Video on Demand, November 2013) There’s something both annoying and admirable about the entertainment industry’s insistence at rebooting and shoving down superhero movies down our throats. DC’s maniacal insistence at reviving Superman after the 2006’s disastrous Superman Returns is understandable: Superman is iconic, the superhero film genre is still going strong, and there’s still some goodwill among genre fans for a good Superman film. Man of Steel, fortunately enough, is pretty much as good as it gets from a narrative perspective: Screenwriter David S. Goyer (with some assistance from Christopher Nolan) has managed to find a compelling story to tell about a fairly dull character, and it’s more thematically rich than we could have expected. Man of Steel, in the tradition of Nolan’s Batman films, voluntarily goes gritty: Zack Snyder’s direction favour pseudo-documentary aesthetics, the cinematography is more realistic than glossy, and the final act’s destruction feel more traumatic than purely entertaining. Much of this grittiness feels wrong for those raised on the squeaky-clean Superman character, causing more discomfort than necessary. On the other hand, the result is a film that’s reasonably captivating to watch: Superman has an inner conflict to solve, the action sequences aren’t generic and there’s a real effort to ground Superman to an identifiable reality. Henry Cavill is pretty good in the lead role, while Amy Adams does the most with a somewhat generic character. Michael Shannon brings some unexpected complexity to the antagonist, while both Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner get small but plum roles as the protagonist’s two fathers. While Man of Steel is (ironically) a bit too down-to-earth to feel like a blockbuster epic made to be re-watched over and over again, it’s a cut above the usual superhero fare: There’s some real pathos here, an origin story built on well-used flashbacks, sense of personal growth for Superman (something rarely seen) and the solid foundation for further entries. Recent superhero movie history has shown that it could have been much worse, and if I’ll happily take a glossy Superman movie over an unpleasantly gritty one, it would be churlish to deny the successes of this version of the character.
(On Cable TV, August 2013) There are times where I feel guilty of apparently not being able to appreciate the acclaimed genius of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, and then there are times where I’m comfortable not being enthusiastic about his films. The Master clearly falls into the second category, as it meanders all over the place and almost forgets to actually tell a story. Much has been made of the film’s connections to Scientology, but don’t read too much into it: While Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a decent L. Ron Hubbard stand-in, and while much of his cult’s teachings find resonance in Dianetics, Anderson doesn’t try to tell anything close to a true story. The Master instead focuses on a man left adrift after his military service in World War II, and finding some purpose in associating with the burgeoning cult. Joaquin Phoenix is remarkable in the lead role, radiating danger, pain and coiled aggression in nearly every frame. Amy Adams is almost as surprising in a shrewish role far away from her usual good-girl screen personae. And much of The Master’s cinematography is truly remarkable, evoking a deep sense of craft in the way the film is presented. The problem is that none of those interesting things amount to an interesting story. The pacing is deathly slow, the loose ends are numerous and the conclusion can’t be bothered to actually conclude. There’s little here to satisfy fans of sustained narratives, nor clear meaning. I’ll still give a chance to Anderson’s next film.
(In theaters, December 2010) I have no specific interest in boxing movies or family dramas, but even I can recognize that The Fighter is about as good as those kinds of films can ever be. Based on the true story of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, the film focuses on a period during which family problems and lack of focus are threatening to derail his career. Part of the appeal is the film’s unusual message of reasonably distancing oneself from one’s family in order to succeed –a far cry from the usual family-at-all-costs message in American films. While the film does end up with a happy reunion… it’s suitably nuanced by sacrifices and bad personality traits from everyone involved. Although Mark Wahlberg is credible as a boxer, he doesn’t have much to do dramatically here but portray a solid hero; Christian Bale gets a far more interesting role as a washed-up addict waking up to his faults, whereas Amy Adams throws herself in a role that could have easily gone straight to cliché. David O. Russell’s direction is often documentary-style; more-so at first, and then later on during the boxing sequences. Those boxing scenes are solid enough to actually catch the nuances of who’s winning and why (which turns out to be essential once the protagonist starts winning fight unexpectedly). Given the film’s close ties with the real people it portrays, don’t expect to see Ward’s true story (read the news clippings instead). Still, even if The Fighter doesn’t have any surprises and plays with clichés, its portrayal of lower-class characters is honest, its payoffs are earned and its blend of sports and family drama is satisfying.